Saturday, December 09, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SPICES AND HERBS: BY PADMA LAKSHMI



THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SPICES & HERBS : AN ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE FLAVOURS OF THE WORLD: PADMA LAKSHMI:
HARPER COLLINS: PAGES 352: PRICE: RS 1750/-

Padma Lakshmi is a famous television host and a successful cookbook author. She is also a well-known fashion model and jewelry designer. She runs a Nonprofit organization for women affected by endometriosis which she founded along with her doctor and savior, Dr. Tamer Seckin in 2009.The Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA) is dedicated to combating endometriosis through advocacy, focussed research, education, and increasing awareness.

The experience of having travelled across the globe from a young age which added to her passion for cross -cultural food makes her a winner for every book that she writes on cooking. Her earlier book was also on the New York Times Best Seller list. Her reality show Top Chef running for fourteen seasons bagged the Emmys award in 2016 where it was nominated for Outstanding Reality Competition Programme. This is the multi-hyphenate talent Padma Lakshmi’s fourth book.

Padma writes that from early childhood she was fascinated with spices and herbs. Growing up with her grandparents in Kerala, she spent considerable time in the family kitchen watching her grandmother use the locally available spices to delirious effect. Thus the seed of interest in the wonderful flavours of different spices and herbs got planted in her formative years which now is in full bloom as a well grown plant and offering to the readers of her illuminating books access to a wide knowledge of this subject literally from A to Z. This reference book does exactly that. It is an alphabetic compendium of magical ingredients like salts, peppers and of course spices and herbs both familiar as well as obscure which come together from all over the world. She provides the correct botanical name of each ingredient with an in-depth and informative description which makes it comprehensive and scientific. She also provides medical information on how some of the spices can give relief from attacks of asthma, urinary tract infection, etc. Such a diverse range of spices adds the extra attraction to the book. The book has very richly coloured pictures that give the reader a good look, smell and feel for the fascinating flavours  that eventually emanate in the end product which is both healthy and delicious. The book has no recipes. But it has suggestions as to how the best dishes can be prepared with an intelligent use of the most unbelievable and exotic seeds and chillies. Her fond attachment to Kalustyan’s, a gourmet food store in New York City, is because of the early exposure that she received in global cuisine. Running around the shop as a young girl, she picked up the aroma and flavor of spices and herbs stocked up from all over the world in this iconic store. Be it South Indian sambhar powder or the mid-east Sumac or Szechuan peppercorns the book has all of them. An interesting fact that the author points out is that  are so many similar cuisines throughout the world.

A well-researched and beautiful encyclopedia, co-authored with Judith Sutton also a cookbook author and cookbook consultant, it is a welcome addition to a plethora of books on this genre. Though the book aims at a select audience, it would be of great value to the large libraries the world over. Padma writes lucidly and in a simple and attractive and endearing manner drawing the readers’ attention and keeping it focused without dithering or drifting from the subject. The author does not limit herself to the title of the book. She provides information of the various accoutrements like vinegars, oils, etc which amplify the taste of the food and as well as on toasting spices and preparing tea.  Of course, one does not read the boo in one go because it is used for reference. But then the presentation and the information grips the attention of the reader who gets encouraged to read more and more. It is a must read for all cooking buffs as well as well established Chefs. It will help the newcomers from cooking mundane stuff to a high level of eclectic food. It gives them a panoramic and exciting tour of this whole class of plant kingdom which benefits them as a resource and gives them all the pleasures of an exciting adventure which starts from ‘advieh’ and ends in ‘zedoary’.

BOOK REVIEW: THE MIND OF GOD: BY DR JAY LOMBARD


THE MIND OF GOD: NEUROSCIENCE, FAITH, AND A SEARCH FOR THE SOUL: DR JAY LOMBARD: HARMONY BOOKS: PAGES: 197: PRICE: RS 1600/-

I just completed reading an extraordinary book written by Dr. Jay Lombard, a renowned and internationally acclaimed neurologist. I immediately decided to share my review of the book with readers of Dignity Dialogue. Dr. Lombard is the co-founder and developer of Genomind, a personalized medicine company for brain health which utilizes genetic testing to improve neuropsychiatric conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Autism, and Depression. Dr. Lombard’s discoveries have been regarded by key opinion leaders as fundamentally shifting the paradigm of psychiatric medicine. He is considered by those who know him intimately as “part Freud, part Sherlock Holmes.” He served as Chief of Neurology at Bronx Lebanon Hospital in New York, and currently is in clinical practice in Manhattan. He has appeared as a guest on many TV programmes including Larry King Live and CBS News. He is well known for his compassion and commitment to his patients and has received multiple honours as a top neurologist in New York.

For me it was a great journey into the far depths of the mind and to experience how Dr. Lombard has tried to reconcile the doubts and beliefs that lie at the interface of religion/faith and science. He has addressed this subject in a very compelling and convincing manner. Science is science and Faith is faith and the twain shall never meet. Is that true? Or can both meet on a common ground when the physical and the metaphysical come very close to the answer to the question- Is there truly a God?

Contrary to the belief held by many neurologists, Dr. Lombard does not believe in the incompatibility and irreconcilability of science and faith. Instead, he views his extensive medical background as a gateway through which he is able to access human minds and understand and appreciate its complexity. While on this mission, Dr. Lombard has discovered in his own words “many secrets about the nature of human beings, the universe, the purpose of our lives and the possible existence of something beyond all of this”. As a firm believer in science and quantifiable data, he shows a very sharp and insightful perspective by trying to use science as a platform to discover hitherto unacceptable or unknown aspects of metaphysics and how both can answer the following questions:

 * Does God exist?
 * Do human beings have souls?
 * Are human any different from other animals?
 * Do we have free will or is life predetermined for us?
 * Is there a meaning for life, and is there a higher purpose to human existence?
 * Is there life after death?

The author uses remarkable case studies from his own extensive neurology practice to prove the dominant role that faith plays in sustaining life. Neuroscience helps us to learn how our brains interpret reality and how this could result in more satisfying and fulfilling lives. Though most neuroscientists insist that beyond the flesh there is no physical evidence of existence and that the concept of a soul is nothing but an illusion, Dr. Lombard begs to differ. There are gaps in conventional scientific thinking referred to as the “hard problem of consciousness” which refers to the grey zone between “tangible senses and the supra-sensory experience we have of them.” Consciousness is a gift which enables human beings to inquire about the meaning of existence, says Dr. Lombard. There is hidden deep inside us a ‘deeper, intrinsic and fascinating reality”. Call it mind, soul or energy it is irreducibly complex and basic to our existence. Dr. Lombard argues that with science, faith and reasoning we can surely see something beyond and what we see will be extraordinary. We have to understand how the biological and transcendental can complement each other positively and strike a balance as we need both not either/or.

The purpose of this book is to enable us to first understand the brain (not mind) in a better manner. That leads us to a better understanding of the mind. Through this mind if we start probing the Mind of God, we can discover a mind that is helpful and “constantly embracing and ultimately creates and doesn’t destroy”. With such a thinking process without inhibitions, one can positively and radically change one’s life. All the questions raised above   can be answered by using the brain and the mind as tools. They equip us to know the meaning and purpose of life and probably “the wizard behind the curtain.”

With several case studies as examples Dr. Lombard admirably conveys his thinking that through our beliefs and actions we manifest God’s otherwise unknowable reality. We are all divine sparks of “not merely a piece of the entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole.” Our existence is because of God and He exists in tangible ways through us. Our faith can be seen in our deeds, our love and our caring for each other. Our understanding of God is not to promote separation or fighting among ourselves. He has knit us all together in love.
And it is in this love that we become immortal.

BOOK REVIEW OF "I DO WHAT I DO"- RAGHURAM G RAJAN

“I DO WHAT I DO”: RAGHURAM G RAJAN: HARPER BUSINESS: PAGES 323: PRICE: RS 699.

“I was asked if I was a dove like [Janet] Yellen or a Hawk like [Paul] Volker. I was getting a little tired of these bird analogies as well as being compared with all these other people.  And so I started off laughingly, James Bondish: My name is Raghuram Rajan and I do what I do.”

Just a year after his term as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India came to an end, Raghuram Rajan’s book “I do what I do” which is a collection of his talks, lectures, and commentaries conveying what it was like to be as the head of the central bank was published. He confirmed during his tenure his reputation of a first class economist and banker and one who articulated his views both in private and public in a bold and convincing manner during his short stint as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

The Indian economy was in dire straits when he arrived on the scene. The rupee was in free fall, inflation was high and mounting. The current account deficit had shot up and importantly India’s foreign exchange reserves were frightfully falling. Many attempts to reign in an economy in serious trouble had failed. And more problems were in store. A full-blown crisis was expected by keen market watchers. Suddenly, a strong economy had become one of the world’s five fragile economies.

Stepped in Raghuram Rajan. He immediately went all out to bring the confidence back into the market. Besides very successful short term actions, he outlined a long term plan for growth and stability. He emphasized the strength of India’s financial institutions and exhibited his mastery over the problems to take the reforms already instituted successfully forward. Whether it was unemployment, inflation or bad loans he took all of them head on.

NPAs (Non performing Assets) and bad loans had become a major issue. Raghuram Rajan showed exemplary clarity in dealing with the ‘bad-loans’ problem. He emphasised  the importance of “early recognition of distress and fair treatment of lenders and borrowers.” In his opinion Central Bank’s policy must be tuned to “help those with difficulty while being firm with those trying to milk the system.”  In this process, he dwells on the relationship with the bureaucracy and its attempts to clip RBI’s wings. He warned against reckless lending and he launched during the end of his tenure in September 2016, the Asset Quality Review in order to compel banks to square their books of accounts. He was unfairly criticized for a slowing of credit from the public sector banks leading to a slowing down of the economy.

Controlling inflation is paramount to him. If not correctly controlled, it could lead to hyperinflation when money becomes worthless. And that was one of his first focus areas. Raghuram Rajan understands the theory and practice of this subject extremely well. He has devoted a full section titled “Hawks, Doves, or Owls” explaining how inflation has to be fought. He set inflation targets. He explains the role of food prices in causing inflation and other possible causes like minimum support price, MGNREGA, rural liquidity and credit, shift of the labour force from agriculture to construction and other areas. Monetary policy is an important tool to limit the rise in wages particularly in urban areas, says Raghuram Rajan. There is no doubt that he was successful in containing inflation during his period. “The key point to note is that a central bank serves the economy well and the cause of growth best by keeping inflation low and stable around the target set by the Government. It is a fallacy to assume that by dramatic interest rate cuts the central bank could generate sustained economic growth. RBI keeps both reasonable growth and inflation in focus and maintains the balance.”

Financial inclusion is one of Raghuram Rajan’s pet subjects. It needs a revolution. With over 900 million mobile phones, there is a huge opportunity for mobile banking. And technology with its capacity to reduce transaction costs can greatly help in large volume low-ticket transaction which is at the centre of financial inclusion..“ Despite the high return from the delivery of credit to the poor, and despite much of our financial  inclusion efforts focused on credit, we still reach too few of the target population. So there is much more to be achieved”.

There are many other topics of interest which Raghuram Rajan has covered in this book. How distress in the banking system can be resolved, how international issues could impact our economy and the last global financial crisis which he had predicted.

One strength of Raghuram Rajan that comes out in the book is his human relations. He was extremely supportive of the people who worked for him. He had great regard for all the employees of RBI and constantly motivated them to perform better. The love and regards that they reciprocated were demonstrated when he bid farewell to them.

All in all, it is book worth reading. He was neither a cheer-leader nor an unconstrained critic of the Government. He expresses his responsibilities and special concern for the country’s youth. “Of course, my past experience as Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, where my job was to identify macroeconomic risks across a variety of countries, gave me a unique cross-country perspective, and heightened my sense of responsibility. I also felt this responsibility from a different source. Because of the relentless press attention, I realized that many young people who were looking for a role model now saw the Governor of the Reserve Bank as one they wanted to learn from and imitate. I felt I had to display the highest professional integrity, over and above the obviously necessary personal integrity, if I were to discharge my responsibility to these youth.”

His speeches and commentaries show his mastery over the subject and he makes them understandable to the audience. No graphs or charts. There is not much of economic jargon or sermonizing. It is clear, lucid, refreshing, frank and bold. One gets an overview of our economy, the challenges ahead and how it should be tackled by the Central Bank in conjunction with the Government.


                                       

Thursday, August 24, 2017

CULINARY AFRICAN KING BECOMES A NATIONAL OBSESSION

Jollof rice is an unique African delicacy relished at every important event literally from the cradle to the grave. It is craved by all Africans young and old alike. 22nd of August is World Jollof Rice Day.

The name Jollof owes its origin to the Wolof tribe who live in Gambia and Senegal. Though originally Jollof rice started as a fish-based recipe, the chicken garnished Jollof rice has gained greater popularity. Both enjoy unparalled adulation throughout the African continent. I was surprised to know that plain seasonal vegetables are used to make a stew and mixed with basmati rice and tomato sauce to prepare a vegetarian Jollof rice.

Jollof rice is normally avoided in the mornings. It is taken at dinner time. Tomato sauce dominates the various spices and herbs that are added to give it a special flavour and it gives this popular dish its distinctive redness. Even palm oil and tea bush leaves are added to give Jollof rice a very special aroma.

I decided to have this dish prepared at home and asked my cook whether she was ready to experiment with a new dish. She happily agreed and what you see in the picture below is the result of my encouragement and her efforts.



Needless to say that I enjoyed eating Jollof thoroughly and it was then that I realised why this culinary king has become a national obsession in Africa.